In November, Oak Park Brewing Company celebrated its two-year anniversary. In those two years, it’s become one of the region’s most celebrated breweries and restaurants which isn’t bad considering it was all started by four friends brewing in their garage with little to no restaurant experience. Ask anyone about opening a brewery and they will tell you it’s a risky endeavor, tell them you’re planning on opening a brewpub and they’ll probably call you crazy. I sat down with Bonnie Peterson, Tom Karvonen and Dave Estis to find out how they were able to make it work, even when the odds were stacked against them.
ON GETTING STARTED
Tom: We started as homebrewers, in (Bonnie and Dave’s) garage. Started doing these brew day parties, we called them big brew days. We’d invite people over, we’d do barbecue and Dave and I would brew. We always jokingly called their garage “Oak Park Brewing Company” never thinking at the time that we were going to open a commercial brewery.
After entering some contests and winning contests with their beer, Tom, Dave, Bonnie and Shannon decided they would open a real pub. The next question: where?
Bonnie: When we were looking for buildings we looked all over the Sacramento area and at one point we were going to do that industrial park model with a food truck. It’s funny, every time we looked at a building I’d have some excuse for why it didn’t work. I think all of us want to be a neighborhood space that people can come and enjoy themselves. I love Oak Park
Dave: I argued many nights with people that it really wasn’t worth looking anywhere else unless we change the name.
Bonnie: This building came up for sale actually. The broker that was helping us look for buildings contacted somebody who would be interested in buying it. He bought it with us in mind and did the remodel on the historic façade. We did all the remodels on the inside. Having a building owner like that who was so engaged and willing to help was really important. We wouldn’t have been able to do both, a remodel of a building like this and put the money into the brew house if we had to do it on our own.
TAKING ON A BREWERY AND A RESTAURANT
The initial plan never called for opening a restaurant. They were probably going to open a brewery in an industrial area like many of the other breweries in the region. Only they didn’t. They opened a brewpub in the heart of Oak Park. So, how’d that happen? None of them can say exactly, it just sort of ended up that way.
Bonnie: I like to say we got sucked into it.
Dave: I definitely didn’t want to do it.
Bonnie: None of us had it as our main goal; it just kind of evolved into that. Originally the building was going to be leased by a restaurateur and we were going to lease next door. And then it just sort of evolved into use sharing the space. And then they had some trouble coming up with their investment so we ended up building the kitchen. And then, once you put everything into it, you end up running it too.
DON’T FORGET THE BEER
At the heart of Oak Park was still the beer. It was the beer where it all began and it was still the beer they wanted to be most known for.
Tom: We decided early on, we’ve been saying British and Belgium ales with a West Coast edge, we didn’t want to just try to be another IPA house. Our main thing is doing more balanced beers. That’s one thing people like about our IPA. It’s more like an East Coast IPA than a West Coast IPA.
Bonnie: I think the other kind fun thing we kind of do, and maybe it’s because we started brewing in the garage, we really don’t take the styles too seriously. We let our brewers have fun.
Tom: (We want our beer to be) something a little different, something that’s a little more balanced and drinkable than a lot of the wreck your palate IPAs that are out there.
RUNNING A BREWPUB
You’ve got good beer and good food. On paper, those are all the ingredients you need for a brewpub. But as the four friends would discovery, running a brewpub is a whole other challenge. Dave and Tom had been project leaders and managers in their previous professions, but neither had ever run a restaurant.
Dave: It was 7 days a week, 16 hours a day for a while. It was bad.
Tom: Everyone told us you’re going to have to hire twice as many people as you think you need because half of them are going to suck so bad.
Dave: We had an initial general manager who put a really good team together and trained us how to do the restaurant side.
Tom: We have two sets of employees. We have our restaurant employees and our restaurant employees. We lucked out and got some really good people on the team early on and made (running Oak Park) possible.
Oak Park Brewing Company now has around 45 employees. Dave and Tom pretty much split the business with Dave running the restaurant side of things and Tom handling the brewing. None of this made opening day weekend any easier.
Dave: Opening weekend, two days, 12-hour a day shoulder-to-shoulder the entire time, it was that packed the entire time. You didn’t have time to think. You just did what you possibility could.
Bonnie: We knew it would be difficult if we got big crowds. We knew we couldn’t do the full table service that was ultimately going to be the plan and our staff was trained for.
So was Dave nervous?
Dave: I wouldn’t say nervous. I tend to have a, “it’s too late to be nervous” attitude about things. Once it’s started and happening, it’s happening. There’s nothing you can do about it. All you can do is keep pushing forward.
One of the best things about Oak Park is the feel. It’s a lot of brick and steel but yet feels welcoming.
Dave: Kind of Victorian-industrial, steam punkish look without trying too hard to do steampunk.
Bonnie: I think the other thing we can’t leave out is that a lot of the credit for the style of the building goes to our fourth partner, Shannon (Karvonen), who’s not involved in the day-to-day basis. She did most of the interior design herself, she really has an eye for that just came up with some really creative things we wouldn’t have been able to do on our own.
Pretty much everything you see in here is designed to look like it was here, but it’s all new.
Dave: It’s just supposed to be kind of a community place, where you can go and have some food, hang out with some friends, have a few drinks. You know that third place.
Tom: First place being home, second place being work and then third place being the pub.
EVOLVING ON THE RUN
The Oak Park owners had a team and an ambitious plan of running a brewpub with what they described as a white napkin menu. But you know what they say about best-laid plans.
Bonnie: A little too ambitious for our location and for a brewpub. Anybody that has visited us from the beginning until now has seen we shifted a lot.
You’re making really good food and you’re working really hard, and you’re not making any money on it. We had some really creative chefs that came up with amazing food, but when we started to push back because it wasn’t making financial sense to continue with that really amazing food, we lost some people.
Tom: We had to change the food around to be a little more friendly. We have some great dishes, seared ahi with wasabi mashed potatoes and stuff like that, but we definitely added a lot more things like sliders and wings.
And it’s not just the menu that’s evolving. It’s the location and their approach to the business as well.
Bonnie: We did the little beer garden area in the corner that now you can just seat yourself and come in and order at the bar. And that was in response to a lot of people who didn’t want full table service and didn’t want to wait 45 minutes for a table in order to have a beer.
That’s one of the adjustments we made to accommodate both sides of the equation and really make it a more pleasant experience.
It’s fair to say that Oak Park has been a success. Call it a combination of offering something a bit different plus a unique location. Not the team is looking toward the future. They are bottling and selling their beers in the stores and are looking to expand their production facilities.
Dave: We’ll continue to building the brand. Continue refining the pub itself, while saving up to do a production facility. Kind of the ultimate goal is to be a regional brewery, kind of like Track 7.
Whatever the future holds its clear Oak Park Brewing Company plans to stay a part of the neighborhood where it all began.
Bonnie: The four of us always held our ownership in the brewery separately. It really was something each of us wanted to do. I don’t think any of us would give this up because it’s ended up being such a special place in the neighborhood, I love Oak Park.